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The Elephanta Caves

The Elephanta Caves , located on Elephanta Island, or Gharapuri, about 11 Km off the coast of the Gateway of India, Mumbai, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A visit to these caves, excavated probably in the 6 th century CE, is awe-inspiring, and also thought-provoking. Over the years, I have visited the caves a number of times, and also attended a number of talks by experts in the fields of art, history and archaeology on the caves. Together, they help me understand these caves, their art, and the people they were created for, just a little bit better. Every new visit, every new talk, every new article I read about the caves, fleshes out the image of what the island and the caves would have been like, at their peak. I last wrote about the caves on this blog, in 2011, almost exactly 11 years ago. Since then, my understanding of the caves has, I would like to think, marginally improved. Hence this attempt to write a new and updated post, trying to bring to life, the caves of Elephan

Ajanta Caves: Part 2

This is a continuation of my earlier post, so please read AjantaCaves : Part 1, before reading further.

I was most impressed by the Chaitya-grihas. 

The long central area, with the Stupa right at the end, allowing some space for pradakshina, sculptures or paintings adorning every wall or pillar, the ribbed roof – it all added to an impressive sight, especially since most of the structure is intact, even after all these centuries!

Standing there in the nave, waiting for the crowd to leave so we could take a closer look, hearing the chatter die down suddenly, the sudden quiet and peace made me wonder what it must have been like, all that time ago, when these caves were inhabited. Monks walking barefoot filing into the Chaitya-griha, taking their places, beginning their chants... their voices, the only sounds echoing within the stone walls, imbuing even them with the power of faith.... what a spiritual experience that must have been! And then our guide told us that the structure represented a human body – the ribbed ceiling representing our spinal cord, the Stupa representing the mind, the paintings and sculptures on the outer wall representing the skin and our external characteristics – and the inside, filled with the chants and faith! Standing there in that cave, all alone, it was easy to go back in time... till the peace was shattered by another group of tourists.

The viharas, though simpler, are no less interesting. Building individual nooks for monks amidst these mountains would have been no easy task, but they did build these viharas as monasteries – a place of residence, as well as for prayer. They are typically rectangular, with dormitory cells cut into the rock walls.

These cells are usually simple ones, meant for rest, and have no embellishments whatsoever, though care has been taken to provide both fresh air, as well as light.

The early viharas (built during the period of Hinayana Buddhism) are simpler, with just the dormitories, but the later viharas also have a figure of the Buddha or a Stupa at the end to serve as an idol for worship.

The monks seem to have thought of every single detail possible. Not only did they build caves with proper ventilation, they also built steps at regular intervals leading down to the river. Little remains of these steps though....

Outside the caves are also a huge number of carvings and paintings... mostly depicting figures from Buddhist mythology, or the Buddha in his various forms, all of which make the entire set of caves all the more interesting. 

Intricate details on the outside..

A massive elephant

The story of the Buddha etched in stone

The paintings are what Ajanta is most well known for, but unfortunately, very less of the most famous ones are actually visible. The caves are dimly lit, to preserve the paintings (better late than never) and a torch is needed to even get a glimpse of the details. Also, flash photography is prohibited, and thankfully, enforced. But there are plenty more to see, and hopefully we can preserve them better now.

Whether it is a story from the life of the Buddha...

or just a design....

the wealth of detail is simply amazing...

which is what makes these paintings so special...

That they survived centuries is not just surprising, but awe-inspiring....

But it is saddening to think that many of these were lost to human hands. Most of what I have shown you are either high on the walls or on the ceiling, and have been restored. Most of the really beautiful ones inside the viharas or chaityagrihas have been vandalised, and restoration has helped only to a point. I wish we would learn to appreciate the importance of our heritage and learn to preserve it!

As we roamed around, I wondered what was it that made the monks disappear from Ajanta. Some caves have been left unfinished. Some, like this one, were barely begun!

Was it war which impacted their lives? Did they lose royal patronage and were forced to move elsewhere? Who or what could have made them leave such an idyllic place? 

We may never know the answers to all our questions. The only thing we do know is that Ajanta was abandoned... and nature took over....

......till at last, a British officer found his way there. He brought many more to the caves, to see, to study, to appreciate, to wonder....And now, centuries later, people still come, to see, to wonder!

A hillock with a structure on top, providing a panoramic view of the caves. 

If you are wondering why I have not given more information regarding the individual caves, sculptures or paintings, the reason, as I mentioned right at the beginning (Part 1) , is the easy availability of detailed information about these caves.  Besides, if you have already visited Ajanta, you probably know more about it than I do! And if you haven’t visited it, I hope I have given you just enough temptation to go and visit the caves... go, see for yourself why these are listed as a World Heritage Site! 

  • Location: The Ajanta Caves are located about 100 Km from Aurangabad and about 60 Km from Jalgaon in Maharashtra.

  • How to reach:
    • By Air: The nearest airport is at Aurangabad

  • By Train: The nearest railway station is at Jalgaon, which is connected to other parts of Maharashtra by train. However, Bhusaval, about 30 Kim from Jalgaon is well connected to all parts of India. There are also plenty of trains to Aurangabad from Mumbai and other cities.

  • By Road: Aurangabad is well connected by buses from Mumbai as well other cities in Maharashtra. Bus Tickets for Aurangabad by MSRTC buses can also be booked online.

  • Where to Stay: MTDC has two resorts near Ajanta, but I cannot comment on them since we have not stayed there. However, MTDC resorts are usually a good and recommended choice for accommodation. Rooms can be booked online. The only other option is to stay at Aurangabad, which has plenty of  hotels to suit all budgets.

  • Suggestions: A visit to Ajanta can be combined with visits to the Ellora caves, Grshneshwar Temple, Daulatabad fort, Aurangazeb’s tomb, Bibi-ka-Maqbara, as well other places of interest in Aurangabad.


  1. Great post! I am reminded of my tour there in 2007. Great memories revived thanks!

  2. The caves, the carvings and the paintings look awesome. You have captured them beautifully. Lovely post!

  3. Aren't we so glad these caves were discovered! :)
    Thank you for refreshing my memories about this place. I wish I had taken more pictures.

    1. Absoluitely!!! we are so lucky these caves were discovered.. and all we can do is appreciate and help preserve them!

  4. Delightful shots and wonderful information.

  5. 2 words for you Anuradha Shankar, "THANK YOU :)"

    from coldsun


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